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Smart Encoding to Bring Embedded VoIP to Online Games

Multiplayer online game providers—and other social network hosts—may finally crack a key economic hurdle to embedding real-time, in-game voice conferencing, thanks to conferencing software engine supplier SPIRIT DSP.

SPIRIT has announced a TeamSpirit Conferencing Engine for the massively multiplayer online game (MMOG) market that incorporates a scalable SPIRIT IP-MR wideband codec, which can adapt to any bandwidth connection without transcoding.

The IP-MR codec already is widely licensed by enterprise conferencing system makers, VoIP service providers, PC software suppliers, and handset makers and claims more than 60 percent of global smartphone shipments. The company says its products are licensed by more than 200 tier-1 original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and software vendors powering more than 100 million users worldwide.

Earlier this month, Skype announced that its VoIP software will be included in a new firmware download for limited models of the Sony PSP Internet-connected game console, but that will serve as a separate Internet calling application not embedded in online gameplay.

SPIRIT initially will target the TeamSpirit Conferencing Engine to the PC online game market, then “the next logical step is to integrate into the game consoles,” says Slava Borilin, vice president of products.

Blizzard’s World of Warcraft is the first named game powered by the embedded voice solution, and SPIRIT says it is in discussions with several leading MMOG developers and publishers who see voice chat as the next level of gaming communication.

The company claims that TeamSpirit—which includes end-user software, a conferencing server, and soon a mobile client—will eliminate tens of millions of dollars in distributed VoIP server infrastructure costs for a typical MMOG service provider because each Conferencing Engine server can support 1,200 simultaneous users, and because the scalable IP-MR codec can produce high-quality audio over any variety of fast and slow broadband access connections and long distances.

Both those factors mean that MMOG service providers can centralize the VoIP infrastructure and avoid the costs of physically distributed servers. “Game companies can’t charge per minute for voice—at most is $1 or $2 per month—which puts pressure on game provider infrastructure costs,” Borilin says. “They need to have conferencing infrastructure centralized.”

MMOG service providers also need high-quality voice, and the cost of that quality translates to a combination of bandwidth and servers. “Users have different access connections, so the question is how much bandwidth you need to support conferencing,” he says. “We allow 1,200 people per PC-based server, compared with a Webex investing $50 million in conferencing servers. We’re also very flexible in how we use bandwidth.”

That flexibility comes from the IP-MR’s ability to encode a stream once while compressing at several layers. “To increase quality you can decode at two or three or five layers,” Borilin explains. “If you need to change the bit rate for one user, the server senses that and the stream is already compressed for that. The cornerstone of our approach is that we allow the service provider to grant quality to each end user.”

Embedding voice conferencing within online games at the stage of their development would mark a significant departure point, not only in terms of infrastructure costs but also in terms of the immediacy of MMOG user experiences.

“In gaming in the early years, people have used separate voice applications like Skype, but none of those provide a really good experience because the games are hungry for bandwidth and cycles of the CPU,” or device central processor unit, Borilin says. “When you run two different solutions, the overall experience is of inconsistent quality between the game and the voice.

“Game providers and publishers are integrating voice in part because players expect to talk with whoever you see on the screen,” he says. “A separate application won’t follow the gameplay that way. The embedded application is very smooth—no jittering as you’ve seen in the past. And it’s much cheaper for the game provider to license than build the embedded application alone.”

World of Warcraft currently enjoys approximately 8 million users, and the $5.7-billion MMOG business may not yet represent a huge market in the context of other segments like enterprise conferencing.

However, Borilin notes, that MMOG represents a breakthrough for voice as an application integral to all manner of online communities.

“The many-to-many-person community in the game is a very good example of what we expect to see in the world at large,” he says. “Originally phone companies saw a call as between two people, but in reality, life is more like conferencing. We see a lot of interest in going beyond one-to-one communication. The next step will be social networking.”

Indeed, SPIRIT customer PalTalk.com now attracts approximately 40 million regular visitors with thousands of live voice and video chat rooms serving as venues for what PalTalk calls “multimedia socialcasting.”

Skype, a SPIRIT partner, “now allows you to see and join other conversations,” Borilin says. “I think this is a very important change in human behavior.”

Anish Koirala
Anish Koirala
Meet Anish, a talented author in the gaming industry. With a passion for storytelling and a deep understanding of game mechanics, Anish weaves captivating narratives that immerse players in unforgettable worlds.
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